Blog: The Educated Reporter

School Districts To Join ‘Race To The Top’ For Federal Grant Program

School districts will be allowed to join the Race To The Top, and each seek up to $25 million for innovative instructional programs tailored to the needs of specific groups of students, the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday.

Until now, applications for the federal grant program were made at the state level, with funds then distributed to schools. Tuesday’s announcement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opens up a new funding stream that would flow directly to individual districts.

The expanded grant program is designed to make sure “no district is at a disadvantage,” including those already receiving Race To The Top funds, districts not participating in the state-level grants, and rural districts, according to the Education Department’s announcement.

But even by opening the door wider to the federal grants, districts will still have to demonstrate a significant ability to jump hoops to qualify.

As with the state-level program, the districts will have to demonstrate that procedures are in place to evaluate student and teacher performance. There’s also a new accountability provision — districts will have to develop a means of evaluating school boards and superintendents based on community perceptions and student achievement data. (As Gotham Schools reports, some of those hurdles could be significant for New York City’s public schools, the nation’s largest district.)

School districts with at least 2,500 students — and at least 40 percent of them qualifying for free and reduced-priced meals – are eligible for the grants.

“Race to the Top supports states that raise standards, build better data systems, evaluate and support principals and teachers, and dramatically transform their lowest-performing schools,” Duncan said during Tuesday’s announcement. “It also supports the development of new and better assessments aligned with high standards.”

So far Race To The Top has awarded nearly $4 billion in grants to 22 states and the District of Columbia. A $500 million Early Learning Challenge grant program, aimed at helping improve student pre-K and school readiness, has also been announced.  The Education Department is seeking comment on the district-level grant program through early next month, with the final rules to be released in July. Districts will be able to apply for the grants beginning in October.
It will be interesting to see what big ideas individual districts put forward, and how those proposals might differ from what state-level officials are advocating. The expanded grant program also shines a spotlight on local control, an element some critics of Race To The Top say has been lacking in the federal grant program.


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